Death Of A Salesman

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Written by Arthur Miller

Directed by Sarah Frankcom

Sarah Frankcom directs this post-war classic as a sensitive and cerebral study of a family glued together and cracked wide open by the fragility of the veneer of success they cling to. This is an epic study of human beings driven by the human urge for survival, respect and love and with the desire for financial success. Writing in 1949, Miller had a living memory of the Great Depression and was observing the post war escalation of consumerism and greed for success. This is the tragedy of one man and his family in an ultimately fruitless, blind pursuit of the American Dream.

The set design by Leslie Travers creates a sense of normality which also manages to feel quite dreamlike. It’s apparent simplicity effectively allows the focus to be centred on a simple table which represents the centre of the home, the desk of the business world and the dining table of public success. The surrounding edge seating allows other actors to be the chorus of memories in Willy’s mind. Overhead the dense green foliage is perhaps suggestive of the theme of blind ambition, in that we literally cannot see the wood for the trees. The gradual change of leaf colour in Act 2 is poignant as dreams start to fade and crumble.

Frankcom draws stellar performances from a strong cast. Don Warrington absolutely embodies Willy Loman with his weary stoop, worn down by despair and the weight of his salesman’s sample cases. This is a man full of bluster and desperation whose only strategy to cope with fear and disappointment is stubborn denial of his reality. Warrington moves with ease between bravado and rage in erratic mood shifts that can bleed into the warm charm of the consummate salesman. This is a slow burn performance which by the second act is blistering and visceral as lies are challenged and truths are finally spoken. This is a narcissistic man descending into madness or possibly dementia who has been thrown on the scrap heap and whose thwarted ambitions now shift toward the possible validation of a well attended funeral.

Maureen Beattie as Linda gives a powerful performance. She is every inch the supportive, devoted wife propping up her husband’s ego and encouraging her sons to do the same. A paragon of virtue and a loving wife terrified of Willie’s suicidal tendencies she appears to exude everything that makes him declare her “my foundation and my support”. However as her character is further revealed her steely resolve is apparent and it becomes clear that she enables Willy in his quest for success like a partner supporting an addict. She chills and terrifies as she eviscerates her sons when they challenge their father’s perspective.

Biff (Ashley Zhangazha) and Happy (Buom Tihngang) are both strong as the Loman boys. Zhangazha is especially powerful as the older son who is the only one willing to confront his own failings having painfully witnessed the truth about his father. The moment when he speaks of his father and reflects “He had the wrong dreams” is electrifying. Tihngang brings energy and enthusiasm to his role as the younger boy seeking approval from his parents. Spiritually bankrupt and full of selfish entitlement and largesse he is truly his father’s son and a product of a consumerist society.

This is a play that truly stands the test of time. The memory bleed which Willy experiences and it’s impact on his family will resonate with many families living with mental health issues and/or dementia. It also serves to remind us of how the past informs the present when we try to understand our family relationships and patterns of behaviour. This play addresses our very human fear of being a Nobody and how essential it is for human well-being to have validation. Timely reminder for today’s audience as we inhabit a celebrity obsessed world where success is defined by the numbers of followers on social media. Just like Willy Loman many of us struggle with the cognitive dissonance of not living the lives we expected to and revert to various coping strategies to stay in denial. Perhaps like Biff, we all need to pause sometimes, look up at the sky and remember who we really are.

Royal Exchange Theatre 11 Oct – 17 Nov

Production images by Johan Persson

Happy Days

ROYAL EXCHANGE

Written by Samuel Beckett

Directed by Sarah Frankcom

In the opening minutes of Happy Days there is a strangely surreal sense of reassuring normality as Winnie methodically cleans her teeth and applies her lipstick. Yet this women is inexplicably trapped from the waist down in a mound of barren earth like the Queen of a floating island which is brilliantly evoked by Designer Naomi Dawson. Director Sarah Frankcom and Associate Artist Maxine Peake have joined forces on Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. It is a stunningly evoked vision of some kind of absurdist prison or hellish afterlife or perhaps, simply an allegory of a marriage gone stale.

Maxine Peake draws on all her acting skills and delivers a Winnie who shimmers in the harsh sunlight and gleams as the light finally fades. She is girlish and gay or plaintive and rueful. There is quite simply nowhere to hide in this production, nor are there cues from other actors as Willie is always out of her sight even when he is near her. Peake is just sublime throughout, brittlely blithe and gay in Act 1 and pitifully sunken eyed and unkempt in Act 2. With a camera zoomed in on just her face and every tiny expression projected on monitors above her, she never wavers. Her Winnie is runny nosed with an aged voice, seemingly forgotten like an O.A.P in a sub-standard carehome.

She is the quintessential upper middle class British woman who was probably a pre-war d├ębutante brought up to be pretty, charming and cheerful but also brave and stoic in the face of adversity. She reminded me of the Stephanie Beacham’s Rose in Tenko years ago. A delicate beauty who could still ooze pure class and glamour in rags, and who had cut glass vowels and cheekbones with a backbone seemingly formed of pure steel. Certainly Winnie keeps returning to the past to speak in the old style or recall past moments when she was young, foolish, beautiful while holding unto the classics to not forget familiar anchors. She is terrified of losing those anchors to sanity yet can also blithely ask Willie What is that unforgettable line?

It is the vulnerability of the human condition that pains Winnie more than the actual paralysis. What is most important is to be heard as a way of validating sanity and existence. She prattles away to Willie pastiming through the horror of her predicament as a coping mechanism. The maintenance of small routines and the comfort of Willie and the bag are her anchors to ensure she holds unto sanity and to gravity. Even as a husk of her former self in the second act unable to utilise these comforts she wills herself to focus on them as tangible memories, seeing Willie again and singing her song from the now out of reach music box.

This play is a study in mindfulness reminding us all how to harness our senses and focus back in on the little things. In a world where we are often surrounded by the incessant noise of people, media, memes and madness, Winnie’s plight is terrifying yet also an invitation to slow down and stay in the moment.

Royal Exchange 25 May – 23 June

Images by Johan Persson

The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca

Written by Maxine Peake

Directed by Sarah Frankcom and Imogen Knight

Created by Maxine Peake for Hull Truck Theatre and Uk City of Culture this is an unforgettable march through the corridors of power walking in the shabby down at heel shoes of the leader of the Headscarf revolutionaries Lillian Bilocca.

It celebrates the determination and fortitude of a group of working class woman who nearly 40 years ago “achieved more in six weeks than the politicians and trade unions have in years” The tightknit community around Hessle Road were all connected to the fishing industry. In early 1968 three trawlers were lost at sea with a loss of 58 men over 26 days. It was the woman as wives, mothers, sisters, lovers who rose up and said “enough is enough.” Led by Lillian they gathered 10,000 signatures and stormed the offices of the trawler owners and went to parliament to meet the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The result changed the shipping laws and The Fisherman‘s Charter saved countless lives in the fishing industry.

Sarah Frankcom and Imogen have done a wonderful job in the The Guild Hall to bring realise this ambitious promenade performance. A live folk band courtesy of the wonderful Adrian McNally and The Unthanks are in full swing at The Silver Cod Ball. The stuffy ornately dressed couples move stiffly round the dance floor as we watch them celebrate the spoils of the trawler industry.

The arrival of Helen Carter as Lillian is the first sign of real life in this grand reception room. Clad in shabby shoes with a neat buttoned up blue coat and a matching chiffon headscarf she reminds me of early memories of my own mother. She too campaigned on a social issue and refused to be silenced and also met a government minister to have a statute changed. It is a very powerful emotional moment making that sudden connection with my own strong, bolshy mother. As more strong women from The Hessle Road Womens Committee appear the energy continues to build.
The arrival of The Three Day Millionaires brings testosterone, Brylcreem and Old Spice. The dance floor becomes the local pub and suddenly there is lust and life and love and fisticuffs as the booze flows. This is a vivid snapshot of men home for three days who have been spared an icy drowning and are reunited with their womenfolk. A temporary relief from knawing fear of death and a fistfull of cash is a heady cocktail.

The promenade takes us through the corridors of power where endless portraits of men of power stare down at us. We pass women thanking us for our support and enter a Council boardroom with Yvonne Blenkinsop played by Katherine Pearce holding the hand of her young son. Standing on the table she summons up the experience of waiting, worrying and grieving. As each woman steps forward to tell their story it reinforces the sense of what drove these ordinary woman to step up and do something extraordinary.

Subsequent scenes evoke the dead and dying men swathed in icy fog. Pleading, wild eyed and clammy with desperation they are a ghostly tableau. The main council chamber is dimly lit by tealights burning in mismatched teacups – possibly a light to represent each of the 58 men lost? At the centre is a haunting set comprised of a simple kitchen sink unit and a formica table. As we listen with headphones to a soundtrack of a storm and its aftermath we watch a snapshot of acute loss. A woman seeks the smell of her dead husband in his last white shirt. Later she dons the soaking wet garment and stands dripping like a lost siren of the sea.

The grand dinner at The Silver Cod Ball seats the audience at the dinner tables with the trawler owners at the top table. Stony faced, stony hearted and stony earred to the pleas of the women they look on with disdain at these earthy, passionate requests. The silver cod is like a coffin filled with blood money, and Lillian approaches me with a crumpled handful of banknotes asking “Is this what our men are worth?” Strident, rough edged and ardent these women shocked and shamed many of their own men by their actions. It was a bittersweet success as Lillian Bilocca was blacklisted and never worked in the industry again.

The final scenes of this production are stunningly effective and incredibly moving. The original music by The Unthanks for this production is sublime and gorgeous. It is a fitting end to hear the echo of exquisite voices fade away like waves on an ebbing tide. Unforgettable.

The Guild Hall, Hull 3-18 November

Hull Truck Theatre

Photographs by Andrew Billington.